Reign FC have an uphill climb in their NWSL semifinal match against the top-ranked North Carolina Courage, but not an impossible one. They have the coaching talent and the mindset to accomplish the unexpected on Sunday.
Members of the Ride of the Valkyries team got together to discuss the team’s path to the semifinals and this weekend’s match, which kicks off Sunday at 10:30 AM PT and airs on ESPN2.
Susie Rantz: The Reign qualified for the semifinals for the second year in a row, and this year despite all odds. Now that the regular season has wrapped up, what are some of your overall thoughts on the season — so far — for the Reign?
Steve Voght: The word that comes to mind for me is resiliency. Only one player — Bethany Balcer — appeared in all 24 games this year, and she certainly wasn’t expected to do that at the start of the season! That they got to where they did is nothing short of amazing, and it’s kind of weird that we might even feel disappointed they didn’t finish higher, considering there were some frustrating dropped points along the way.
Tim Foss: This season has been amazing! It’s weird that there’s almost this weird cloud hanging over it now, with Vlatko likely leaving, but this season has been such a remarkable achievement of resiliency, planning, recruiting, and actual performances on the field. This season basically set up as a perfect audition for Vlatko for The Big Job as he navigated injuries and World Cup absences, brought along young and untested players and integrated rookies or players new to the league. To think that if this had been a more “normal” season we may never have found Bethany Balcer!
And now the season is setting up for an incredible finish, as Rapinoe comes back into the team and rounds into form, facing The Best Team in the league, with an opportunity for Vlatko to cap it all off with one last trophy.
Jacob Cristobal: This was a team that had expectations not just within themselves but for just about anyone that follows the league to be a title contender. Then they get decimated with injuries to where no one would have blamed them if they opted to punt the season away. Improbable, impossible, whatever you want to call it, they didn’t quit, only reinforced their belief in Andonovski’s system and in each other, resulting in a culture where any player feels like they can step up and be that impact player on any given day.
Veterans have found new wrinkles to their game. Unknowns have blossomed as players that can be the next generation for this club on the field to match what they’re doing off the field in their new home.
Susie: I totally agree. It’s been a roller coaster but all the hurdles the team has overcome make it all the more special to be entering the postseason. Speaking of that, how are we feeling about this matchup against North Carolina on Sunday?
Jacob: I have to stay consistent to the hot air I said on “Coffee & Valkyries.” Reign win, 5-4 in penalties.
Steve: We knew the road to the trophy was going to go through North Carolina, so honestly I feel better about facing them in the semi-finals than in a championship game.
Jacob: I’ll also say, if Reign do what plenty would fairly say to be one of the biggest upsets in woso history, if they do that on Sunday, I think they win the whole thing.
Susie: Yeah, and if they win in the semis, then neither team has home-field advantage for the final, which would be pretty nice.
Tim: At the risk of becoming branded with the Sounder at Heart Optimist tag after predicting the Sounders would go to MLS Cup, I feel pretty good about this team. This season has shown that this squad is capable of taking on any challengers. This team was already handling themselves more than capably against just about anyone and everyone, then they got back Megan Rapinoe.
Susie: I’ll play the role of the Sounder at Heart Pessimist then (although I’m also pretty optimistic). North Carolina is loaded with talent. Who scares you all the most?
Jacob: Destro, I mean head coach Paul Riley. On the field, Heather O’Reilly.
Susie: Must be the HAO game face that has Jacob so intimidated.
The game face has gone global. https://t.co/zaVVw0pVBb— Heather O'Reilly (@HeatherOReilly) February 7, 2017
Steve: When Lynn Williams has her shot tuned in (a big if), she should terrify every opposing defender.
Tim: I think Riley is a pretty good shout. As far as players go, I know that I certainly wouldn’t want to have to defend Crystal Dunn. She’s got the skill, no matter where she is on the field, to cause trouble and create goals — whether for herself or for her teammates.
Susie: Yeah, I would say Dunn as well. I think the Reign can somewhat contain North Carolina’s speed. But Dunn can do everything, and she’s so hard to get off the ball. Her ability to turn defenders quickly is pretty unparalleled. If she had a quiet game, I wouldn’t be sad.
Changing subjects, Bethany Balcer’s name has already come up in this chat. She was nominated for Rookie of the Year, deservedly so. What are your predictions for her first postseason performance?
Jacob: 2 goals: the opening goal and then the winning one in penalties.
Susie: Everyone must buy Jacob a beer when that happens. Everyone.
Steve: I think we might see a repeat of what happened in the most recent Thorns game, where she comes off the bench and surprises the Courage defense with a quick goal. Her knack for getting herself a tiny pocket of space to get a shot off is second-to-none.
Tim: I wish that I’d made the prediction in a way that anyone else knew that it had happened, but I predicted she’d score when she subbed on in that last game against Portland. I’m going to take that as a sign and predict another goal in this one. At this point it’s probably not a smart move to bet against her getting one.
Susie: She definitely has the ability to make something out of nothing. Obviously, everyone is going to have to put in a world-class performance ... but if you were to identify one or two players who are going to have to come up big, who would you name?
Steve: Bev Yanez in the midfield, and whoever partners with Lauren Barnes at centerback. The Courage love to put numbers forward and take a million shots, and the Reign spine will need to be alert to runs and clear crosses all game long.
Jacob: For me it’s Bev Yanez for the reasons Steve said.
Susie: Yeah, the Reign definitely missed Bev in their final regular-season match. She provides the bite in the midfield and covers so much ground. And speaking of North Carolina’s crosses, I was looking up some stats today. The Courage have whipped in 630 crosses this season. The Reign, who have the third-most in the league, have put 405 crosses in. The Courage sure like the cross the ball, and they are darn good at it.
Tim: I think this is a game where Rapinoe needs to have an impact on the scoresheet, not just in how the opposing team reacts to her presence. I think when you get to knock-out tournaments you need your biggest players to step up and demonstrate their value. I also think Casey Murphy is going to make some more big saves, and that might be what keeps things close enough for the Reign to come out of this with a win.
Susie: Murphy has come up big in games like this, but this will certainly be her most significant test yet. How huge was her signing this year? Goodness.
Steve: Speaking of players we didn’t expect to have much impact, it was what, a week from us wondering why the team had made the move to sign her despite having two starting-caliber goalkeepers to being amazed at the fortune of signing her?
Susie: And her first start — a win against North Carolina!
Tim: Murphy was a remarkable signing, and shows an incredible amount of planning and forethought. It’s kind of wild that she was even available after her performances with Montpellier.
Jacob: If we ran a poll, I wonder what the results would be in terms of biggest signing the team made this season: her or Bethany Balcer? In fact, I’m gonna go make that poll right now.
(Narrator: he did)
Susie: I might have to go with Murphy on that question, just by nature of the position. But it’s hard to choose either one over the other. Both have been huge this year.
Tim: It’s hard to choose between the two. I don’t think there are many coaches out there at any level in the men’s or women’s game who have Vlatko’s eye for talent AND his ability to recruit.
Susie: Apparently, Vlatko was complaining to every coach at this year’s draft that he didn’t have a pick. He just nerds out so much about soccer. It’s fun.
Steve: And they’re not alone in making a big impact this year as unexpected new players — Ifeoma Onumonu was basically claimed off the Thorns scrap heap and had some huge goals, and Rosie White had two game-winning goals soon after signing mid-season as well.
Tim: I love Vlatko.
Susie: And Darian Jenkins was desperate for a team that would give her minutes, and look what she’s been able to do.
Susie: OK, last time the Reign faced the Courage, they threw extra bodies in the midfield to address the fact that North Carolina overloads this section of the field. What kind of adjustments are you expecting Vlatko to roll out this time around (as if anyone can accurately get inside Vlatko’s head, but give it a shot)?
Steve: It’s both fun and terrifying to ask that because there are still so many questions about which Reign defenders will be healthy, which could have cascading effects on who plays defensive midfield and outside back. That must be causing both coaches fits in trying to plan their strategy, since whatever lineup Vlatko rolls out will almost certainly be one that hasn’t yet been used this season.
Susie: Yeah. I do think that Tim pointed out an “X” factor earlier, which is that this is the first time the Courage will be facing the Reign with Rapinoe healthy. I expect the Reign to keep her pretty high and look for counters on her side, which is something they were unable to do against the Courage last time. That’s the one weakness the Courage have, although it’s really hard to call it a weakness when they give up so few goals. They like to put numbers into the attack and push high. It’s possible to get them on a quick restart or counter.
Tim: I don’t know that I have any real predictions for what tactical wrinkles Vlatko’s going to incorporate, but no matter what happens I think we can count on a big game from the Sunshine Assassin.
Jacob: What if the greatest trick Vlatko Andonovski does is no tricks at all?
Susie: So meta.
Steve: There’s certainly something to be said for playing to your own strengths and not trying to adjusting too much to fit your opponent ... and then unleashing Balcer and Onomonu in the 70th minute to spring counters.
Jacob: As often as we’ve marveled at what things he’s had the players do on the field (hello Rapinoe on the far post for a Steph Catley corner against Utah), he does often say after a match that it was something simple as, “Stick to this player.”
Susie: OK, second to last question. Let’s talk about the “elephant in the room.” It’s not an elephant anymore really. Vlatko looks very likely to be the next USWNT coach. How are you feeling about that?
Jacob: What’s that saying? If you love something, set it free.
Steve: It’s such a badly kept secret at this point that I made peace with it back when Kate Markgraf first floated his name on her list when she was an ESPN commentator. Plus I look forward to him capping some long-deserving players.
Susie: She didn’t hide it very well, considering she was named USWNT GM like two days later!
Tim: Yeah, I think if you’re plugged in at all, it’s not much of a surprise anymore. We’ve had time to come to terms, and I’m excited for Vlatko to get the opportunity, and I’m excited for what it will mean for the USWNT. I’m not sure how the Reign are going to be able to replace him. There are very few people in the world who are as good at every aspect of being a manager as Vlatko is.
Steve: The one thing that does still give me jitters is the process of finding his replacement here, since the team has built such an identity around how he treats them as a family. We got lucky in the transition from Harvey to him, but I’m not sure there’s a third person in that mold who’s ready to continue the Reign family in the same way.
Jacob: If it is we’re losing Vlatko Andonovski to the US National Team, whoever his successor at Reign FC will be hired because they got the seal of approval from a core group of Jess Fishlock, Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes, and Bev Yanez.
Susie: We’ll leave the “what’s next” for the Reign coaching staff for another day, because I bet that would be a fun prediction game! For now, let’s conclude with your predictions for Sunday. I want to know two things from you: who is going to win and who is going to get the first yellow card?
Steve: I’ll go with a 2-1 Reign win on a late Balcer goal. First booking to Theresa to send a message to the Courage fullbacks about bombing forward unabated.
Jacob: You already know my prediction, result-wise. So first yellow card goes to.... please don’t block me..... Allie Long.
Susie: My vote: Reign win thanks to a set-piece goal or quick restart ... and Denise O’Sullivan picks up the first yellow.
Tim: Okay, Reign win on a ball from Rapinoe off of Balcer’s fantastic forehead at the far post, and I think Sammy Mewis picks up the first yellow. I think Allie gets a yellow shortly after, though.
Susie: Well, there we have it. Optimists all around. You converted us, Tim! Thanks for the chat!
Tim: I think it’s less conversion and more contagion, but I’m glad we’re all on the same page.
Jacob (echoing everyone’s thoughts): Vlatko, please stay no matter what happens on Sunday.